Strength Training vs Muscle Building: What is the Difference?

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People hit the gym for many reasons. Becoming thin or getting toned is not always the motivation behind joining the gym. Some people come to the gym to gain mass, while others come to shred it. However, many of us do not know the basic difference between what type of training builds muscles and which workout style gives you strength. 

Those who start from the basics end up training for muscle building if they don’t have any guidance in that arena.

Before you decide to become big or strong, make sure you know that these two objectives are not interchangeable. There may be programs that offer both but such training only works in the beginning. 

For long term workout benefits and achieving significant progress, one needs to know the basic difference between strength training and muscle building. 

Primary Training Goal

The first and foremost factor that sets apart both training schools is your primary training goal. In most cases, the choice to either get strong or big is motivated by some sort of sport or activity one is indulging in or is already a part of. 

For example, if you are a bodybuilder, the most obvious goal is to be as big as possible, because that’s essentially what bodybuilding entails. Size and aesthetics regulate your fitness regime. Every decision you make is directed towards building muscle, motivated by your primary training goal. 

Conversely, if you’re a wrestler or involved in any sport in which your weight has to be within a certain range or in which you are supposed to be fast and active, then strength training is the most suitable fitness style for you. You want to be as strong as you can without adding mass to your frame. 

Strength training vs muscle building is an age-long debate with many athletes, professionals, and bodybuilders having their own perspective of what training regiment is more beneficial and why. However, before we delve into the specifics let us first understand how strength and muscle development actually works.

Muscle Hypertrophy

The difference between strength training and muscle building can be best understood by looking into the biomechanical components of a human body. Muscle Hypertrophy is a term used for the growth and size increase of muscle cells, most commonly seen in weightlifting. This phenomenon is dependant on both Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy and Myofibrillar Hypertrophy. 

Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy

The former is the growth of sarcoplasmic fluid in cells that result in muscle bulking or growth of muscles in size, without adding to the muscular strength. This might not, however, be the case in all instances of Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy, but it most definitely doesn’t increase muscular strength, since it heavily relies upon increased muscular glycogen storage.

Myofibrillar Hypertrophy

On the other hand, Myofibrillar Hypertrophy increases the strength of muscles without bulking them due to an increase in muscular contractile proteins, myosin, and actin.

When you start exercising, at first the increase in nerve impulses causes muscle contraction. This muscle contraction results in strength gains without adding any inches to the muscle size, hence the body remains the same. 

But the difference starts to show when you continue to exercise and the complex interaction of nervous system responses results in a growth in protein synthesis over time. The muscle cells then start becoming bigger in size and the muscle grows larger and stronger. 

Strength Training vs Muscle Building

Now that we have discussed the science behind both extremes of muscle training, let’s delve into the relationship between the two. Training a muscle solely for appearance requires an altered emphasis. 

The focus is not on performance but on the training effect of your workout on your muscles. That is to say, the volume of your workout and the complete muscle fiber breakdown are directly connected to what you find in the mirror after a period of training. 

So what is better, strength training or muscle building? Simply put, the idea is to work out until your muscles are exhausted and then watch for the cumulative effect of that workout on your muscle tissue. This is opposed to an isolation workout, focused solely on strength, in which the workout is properly planned and should not be performed until muscle exhaustion. 

However, just as there’s a great deal of variability in muscle growth, some people end up gaining very little muscle in response to training, while some gain a ton of muscles. Similarly, strength gain varies from person to person. During the early stages of training, the relationship between gains in muscle and strength is very weak.

The Training Volume  

Another difference between size and strength can be stripped down to the training volume. The number of sets and repetitions you do in a given workout determines what you gain from it. 

The more you workout for a body part, that is, more sets and reps, the greater your training volume is. Now the training volume of your workout varies with your training goal.

We have already established that muscle hypertrophy requires more training volume, but that does not indicate that weights are eliminated from the equation. Building the right amount of training volume with a suitable amount of weights results in stress that leads to muscle growth.

Types of Muscle Fiber

Strange as it may sound, the very fiber of our being determines what kind of athlete we can become. Skeletal muscle is composed of bundles of muscle fibers. These individual muscle fibers are called myocytes, containing many myofibrils that tug at each other, causing muscle contraction. 

Based on their function, muscle fiber types can be classified into two main types, namely - slow-twitch muscle fibers and fast-twitch muscle fibers. These distinctions impact the response of muscles to any particular training or physical activity. Each type of fiber is uniquely able to contract in a certain way. 

Slow Twitch Muscle Fibers 

These types of muscle fibers are naturally wired to use oxygen to generate great volumes of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) fuel for a consistent muscle contraction over a period of time. They can withhold the impact of training for a long time before they fatigue, compared to fast-twitch fibers. These are the real heroes behind the success of athletes who can run marathons or ride a bicycle for hours.

Fast Twitch Muscle Fibers

If you want to know if you can run a marathon, or sprint a mile without getting tired, you must know what type of muscle fibers your body has. Fast-twitch muscle fibers typically use anaerobic metabolism to generate fuel. 

For this very reason, they are good at fueling short bursts of strength or speed, as compared to slow muscles. Able to fire more rapidly than the slow ones, fast-twitch fibers typically produce equal force per contract as do the slow muscles. 

Training for size

To put things simply, when weight training is done exclusively for muscle growth, or in other words, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, the training volume is higher i.e., 12-15 reps on average. In any other type of exercise, rest periods are kept for an average duration, to make sure the body stays energetic to continue the workout. 

The rest periods are significantly shorter while training for size, and the weight load that you are lifting is more moderate than with strength training. Unlike popular opinion, training for size is anaerobic and does not rely on oxygen. 

When your training volume is high, the blood flows heavily to the muscles and results in an increase in lactic acid. This increase ends up in muscle failure as well as a phenomenon called “pump”. When a muscle fails, the amount of cortisol in the body increases, causing the muscle to breakdown. When the muscle builds itself back, it’s relatively larger in size. 

The higher your training volume is, the greater the build-up of lactic acid, leading to greater production of cortisol. The math is simple - bigger muscles. The rest time during workouts usually gives the body a chance to flush out the lactic acid buildup that results in muscle growth. That’s why rest time is significantly minimized in volume training. 

Occlusion Training 

But this isn’t always the universal method for volume training. Some people like it easy and want quick results. For those people, occlusion training is the most effective method. 

In this type of method, a device is attached to a muscle group being trained. The device is tied around the top of a limb, fast enough to restrict the blood flow to the veins, but not the arteries. 

By doing so, muscle cells come to a point where they become so enriched with fluid that they have no other choice but to grow. The oxygen levels are restricted to the point where muscles recruit larger fast-twitch fibers, resulting in an increase in lactic acid, ultimately ending up in increased protein synthesis. Ergo, the muscles grow.

Training for Strength

When you are training for strength, the key is to increase myofibrillar hypertrophy with weight lifting. The dynamics of this training revolve around low volume training, incremental weight load or progressive overload, and long rest periods. But long rest periods do not mean you rest for an hour. It means taking a breather for a period of 3 to 5 minutes. This time frame is long enough for your body to recover from the exercise but not enough to cool you off. 

What happens during the rest period is that when the muscle is damaged during one set, the rest period until the next set allows the muscle to overcompensate while it is repairing itself, making muscle fibers stronger, without enlarging the muscle. 

Training for strength targets your central nervous system, teaching it how to recruit your motor units during the exercise, with the utmost efficiency. The ultimate goals of the training are muscle strengthening, joint reinforcement, bones hardening, and the development of stronger connective tissues.

Tips for Muscle Building

If you are training for muscle building, make sure you check all these training protocols off the list. 

  • You must have a balanced diet that offers low body fat maintenance and enough protein to make your muscles grow in size. 
  • Ensure progressive overloading for maximum muscle fiber recruitment and growth.
  • Exert yourself to near failure, i.e., push your exercise set until you could not do one more repetition in that set due to fatigue. 

Tips for Strength Training 

  • Keep your focus on the form rather than perfect weight. 
  • Make sure not to swing, jerk or slack. Use well-measured slow and precise movements during your exercise. 
  • Remember, if you can’t lift heavy weights, be patient. Low weights do not mean you can’t build your strength. It’s a progressive result. 
  • Have more control over your eccentric movements as compared to your concentric motion. This does not mean that you should have control over your concentric movements. It only means that the slower eccentric movements can lead to muscle development, which is not the focus here. 

Conclusion

Whether you are joining the gym to gain muscle strength or you want to look big and muscular, there is no manual that can lay out this path for you, step by step. You will have to learn through trial and error, see what works for your body, how much it can take, and how quickly your exhaust yourself. Whatever has motivated you to indulge in this training regime, make sure you are utilizing all of the resources at hand to achieve the best results. 

Furthermore, there are two main factors that might affect your muscle growth. Your gender and your genetics. Men have a better advantage of building muscles because of higher levels of testosterone and red blood cells than women. Moreover, heredity also determines how much muscle you can develop. 

Choose your goal accordingly and always remember that both types of muscle training are good for you. There is no good or bad here. 

Also, remember not to rush through the process. Be patient, do your best, be consistent, consult with experts, and keep yourself as informed and educated on the subject as you can. The more you know, the better the desired results. 

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